It was mid-December 2010. I was shopping for last-minute Christmas presents in the ritzy suburb up north. The kind of place where the cops are crossing guards, the dogs are fashion accessories, and the bars are four-star restaurants. The kind of place where they’ve never heard of secondhand smoke or pinball machines. The kind of place I wouldn’t set foot in if moms weren’t so damn impossible to shop for.
I had just picked up an embarrassingly cheap gift card to some place that sold glittery hand soap and rhinestone cat collars, and I needed a break from the swarms of Botox beauty queens and their walking wallets who certainly looked old enough to know better.
This was the kind of place where they had never heard of secondhand anything. Forgive me, Recycled Books (re: e-book-immortality-and-nostalgia-yellowing-gone), I broke edge. I put on my sunglasses and ducked into the brand new, two-story Barnes & Noble. I was in the area. I was just passing through. I thought I’d stop in and pay too much for burnt coffee. I just wanted to flip through the new Mark Twain autobiography that I would never be able to afford. I wasn’t going to buy anything, I swear. I don’t buy books as presents anyway. If I do, they always end up on my shelf, replaced with an IOU 1 BEER in the person’s Christmas stocking.
There are only a handful of moments in a man’s life when he experiences something so powerful that it cuts right down to his soul and changes him forever. Births, deaths, breakups, finding rock-bottom in the lukewarm backwash of a PBR. …And the heartrending realization that the Teen Paranormal Romance section at the Barnes & Noble is bigger than the History, Science and Philosophy sections combined. Bigger than Horror. Bigger than Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Bigger than Jesus.
I fell apart. I became a frenetic whirlwind of hatred and curiosity. I pulled book after book off the shelves, gawked at cover after cover featuring voluptuous, pale, poorly-photoshopped teenagers staring back at me with mocking, blood-red eyes, laughing in deafening silence at my pile of rejection letters and unpublished short stories about ugly people who can’t pay the rent. I skimmed page after page of sappy, derivative prose that spit in the face of everything I dared to call art. It was a torrent, tempest, and, as the Bard might say, whirlwind of bullshit.
I never did flip through the Twain autobiography. I told the burnt coffee man to pour me another round and I drove out of that town as fast as the overdressed crossing guards’ speed limit would allow.
I spent the next two years wallowing in contempt for the ridiculously successful fad of so-called Teen Paranormal Romance. In that time I self-published two books about ugly people who can’t pay the rent, and both were easily lost and forgotten amongst the sea of werewolf porn and Twilight fanfiction that flooded and drowned every writing website on earth. I loathed them and I (not-so-secretly-as-I-hoped) envied their countless 5-star reviews and jaw-dropping sales numbers. But once I had finished bashing my skull bloody with a secondhand hardback of Fahrenheit 451 at the unholy advent of Fifty Shades of Grey, something changed.
I was feeling nostalgic, as I so often do, and decided to revisit the covers of the six trillion or so Goosebumps books I had enjoyed so much as a kid. That inevitably led to a Google Image Search for Fear Street, and my little Nightmare on Memory Lane devolved from there into Christopher Pike and the hundreds of other rip-offs and coattail riders that epitomized the 90’s Young Adult horror craze.
It occurred to me then how foolish I had been. It wasn’t that I was wrong about the new fad. It was undeniably godawful wretched and it all but crushed the already fragile spirits of aspiring writers everywhere. But these books, these cruel and soulless wastes of paper, had a purpose. One of such importance that I couldn’t help but write an article about it full of embarrassing one-liners and pretentious self-deprecation.
R.L. Stine, a remarkably prolific author of remarkably dubious talent, was pumping out three books a month back in the 90’s. They were short, shoddy and derivative pulpjunk for undiscerning “young adults” who had a taste for sexy slashers and goofy ghosts. They were terrible and they spawned countless, gag-worthy copycats. And I loved them all.
I loved them so much, in fact, that I forced my parents to buy every one, and I read them from morning to fearful bedtime. I read them at dinner, at the rare trip to Grandma’s, even during class (and I still cast blame on Mr. Stine to this very day for my community college Associate’s major in tacos, Keystone and jackshit.) I simply couldn’t get enough of that garbage. And I could not possibly express in words how thankful I am.
Granted, I’ve always been a big reader. (I have my dad and Alvin Schwartz to thank for that, but that’s a whole ‘nother article.) And for that matter, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. (Thanks again, Pops!) But something about Stine’s eye for cheesy horror really clicked with me. My pen was already pressed to the paper, but Goosebumps and Fear Street seemed to push it across the page when it otherwise wouldn’t go. Everything I was writing at that time was a juvenile rip-off of classic literature like Say Cheese and Die… Again.
It only seems right that the 27-year-old aspiring writers of 1995 would hate me and my ilk. Luckily for them (and for me), I hadn’t discovered the internet yet. Even still, I can only imagine their disdain for the bastardized, commoditized bullshit that inspired me so. I like to think that they walked into Walden Books, saw the giant cardboard displays and immediately stormed off into the mall arcade to blow off some steam on the Mortal Kombat machine.
They were right, of course. The books were an affront to common literary decency, their success a slap in the face to those who struggled every day with a new rejection letter in that ancient metal thing they called a mailbox. But because of those books, I was reading and writing more than I ever had before. I was insatiable. I was learning.
When I look up the download count on my latest e-books, I have to sift through a hundred thousand barely-legible stories titled “Bitten by Dusk” or “Isabella Learns Her Undead Sex Powers,” but these days I really don’t mind. As much as I despise them and their MS Painted stock photo covers, the books remain an honest effort by “young adults” who found something they could relate to. Something that pushed their pen across the page. Something that made them want to devour books with the voracious hunger of, well, a vampire. And more importantly, to try out writing for themselves.
My personal taste, burning envy and grammatical facepalms aside, I can’t deny that these kids are just like I was when I was their age. And if they keep at it, they may very well become good writers. Or at least successful ones. I take solace in knowing that the Teen Paranormal Romance fad will die out soon enough, but not just because it will finally kill the ridiculous obsession with girls pining over animals and corpses, but because it will be replaced by something else. Some other unpredictable trend that captures the imagination of youth and nauseates those of us who wish that JUST ONCE the Editor would say “Congratulations!” instead of “I regret to inform you…” Something that encourages talented kids to read and write and follow their dreams.
A long time ago, R.L. Stine came to a small town not far from where I lived for a book signing. I dragged my poor dad all the way out there and made him wait in line for three hours until I got a worthless scribble in my copy of Welcome to Dead House. When we finally got to the fold-out table and Stine scrawled his name on my title page, I looked him in the eye and told him, “I’m a writer, too. I write horror, just like you.” He smiled weakly and dismissed me as any asshole pop-writer would, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. I was affirmed in my passion. I was encouraged and inspired. I took the signed book back to my extremely patient father’s car and started brainstorming. I’ve never stopped.
We may not fully understand the popular affinity for bad books, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that some underappreciated twentysomething writer back in 1955 probably thought that the Hardy Boys were the harbingers of mystery novel End Times. Trends come and go, but the inspiration and the passion is always there. And as much as I want to drink the blood of people like Stephanie Meyer, they are doing something important enough to justify their painful wastes of paper: They are getting kids to read and write. And for that I thank them.